The History of Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Efforts


Exposed oyster reefs in Virginia's Elizabeth River.

Dr. Lisa Drake

Early voluntary efforts, the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, and the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement

The first 20 words of the 1972 Clean Water Act are straightforward and completely impossible to misinterpret: "The objective of this Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters."

More than 40 years later, bodies of water across the U.S. are so polluted that huge areas are unable to support aquatic life, human health is at risk, and our economy is hurt. The Chesapeake Bay has been on EPA's "dirty waters" list for decades.

According to the Clean Water Act, states must develop a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) specifying the maximum pollution levels allowable to meet water quality standards for all waters identified on their "dirty waters" list.

The Chesapeake Bay is arguably the most studied large body of water on earth. Forty years of intense scientific investigation by leading estuarine scientists have identified why the Chesapeake is degraded and how to fix it. No other water body in the world can boast this level of scientific understanding.  It is an unusually complex ecosystem, but there is a great deal of scientific consensus on the causes of its decline. First and foremost among these causes is a huge and systemic overabundance of human-introduced nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the Bay from the land and the air. This excess nitrogen and phosphorus feeds algal blooms that block sunlight to underwater grasses and contribute to the formation of dead zones, areas in the Bay and its tidal waters without sufficient levels of oxygen. Ultimately, this degradation of water quality contribute to the decline of the Bay's living resources.


Prior to 1983, with rare exceptions, the jurisdictions that make up the Bay watershed made their own plans and programs independent of one another. Even after the first joint agreement was signed in 1983, efforts remained voluntary—and, unfortunately, ineffective:

  • 1983: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement with the state of Maryland, the Commonwealths of Pennsylvania and Virginia, and the District of Columbia recognizing the need to act to clean up the Bay.
  • 1987: The governments signed a new agreement that required a 40 percent reduction in nutrient pollution to the Bay by 2000.
  • 1992: The 1987 agreement was reaffirmed.
  • 1998: CBF published the first "State of the Bay" report card on the Bay's health, grading it a 27 on a scale of 100.
  • 1999: Environmental groups filed a lawsuit against EPA for failing to require Virginia to develop a TMDL for its tidal waters that were on the Clean Water Act’s “dirty waters list.” The consent decree mandated that EPA develop the TMDL by 2011, if Virginia did not do so by 2010.
  • 2000: Partly in response to the lawsuit, the EPA and the Bay jurisdictions signed a fourth agreement. The Chesapeake 2000 agreement set a goal of improving water quality in the Bay and its tidal rivers sufficiently to get them off the "dirty waters list" by 2010.
  • 2007: EPA and the Governors of the Bay states admitted the terms of the 2000 agreement would not be met by the 2010 deadline—indeed likely not until 2020 or later. So, the Bay partnership started working on a Chesapeake Bay watershed-wide TMDL to set pollution limits needed to restore water quality.

The definition of insanity is to keep  doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The decades long history of signing Chesapeake Bay agreements and then failing to achieve those commitments clearly wasn’t working.  If there were to be any hope of breaking out of this cycle, the federal, state, and local governments of the region needed to commit to take dramatic, cooperative action.

On January 5, 2009, CBF and a group of partners filed suit against EPA asserting that EPA was legally required to use its existing authorities to set science-based pollution limits (i.e., the TMDL), but more importantly to provide leadership, ensure accountability and impose consequences on the Bay jurisdictions for failing.

Settlement discussions were begun with the new Administration. On May 12, 2009 President Obama issued an Executive Order calling the Chesapeake Bay a "national treasure" and instructing his administration to exercise leadership and develop a federal strategy to restore the Bay. Reports on the strategy were due in September, a draft strategy in November, and a final strategy on May 12, 2010.

On May 11, 2010, CBF, its co-plaintiffs, and EPA settled their lawsuit with a binding agreement that required EPA to take specific actions by dates certain to ensure that pollution to local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay was reduced sufficiently to remove the Bay from the federal "dirty waters" list.  Among other commitments, the settlement agreement incorporated the Chesapeake Bay TMDL as well as an “accountability framework” designed to hold states accountable for developing and implementing clean-up plans and two-year milestones.

2010-2025: The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint

  • December 2010: EPA and its partners developed the landmark Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), setting limits on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment that can enter the Bay and its tidal rivers to meet water quality goals. The seven Bay jurisdictions each published their Phase 1 Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) that spelled out detailed, specific steps they would take to meet those goals by 2025. Together the pollution targets and the states' plans comprise a Clean Water Blueprint for the Chesapeake and its rivers and streams.
  • January 2011: The American Farm Bureau Federation and the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau file suit against EPA challenging the Chesapeake Bay Clean up plan. They were soon joined by other big, national agricultural industry groups and the National Association of Homebuilders.
  • May 2011: CBF and other partners filed a motion to intervene in the case in support of EPA.
  • March 2012: Jurisdictions submitted final Phase II Watershed Implementation Plans to EPA.
  • June 2012: EPA released its evaluation of the Jurisdictions’ 2009-2011 Milestones. The milestones, a key component of the accountability framework, represent key check-in points on the way to having all pollution reduction measures in place by 2025 to restore the Bay and its tidal rivers. By 2017, controls should be in place that would achieve 60 percent of the necessary pollutant reductions.
  • June 2013: CBF collaborated with the Choose Clean Water Coalition (CCWC) on evaluating and publicizing the interim progress toward achieving the Bay jurisdictions’ 2012-13 milestone commitments.
  • September 2013: A federal District Court in Pennsylvania issued a ruling upholding Bay clean-up efforts, citing them as a model of "cooperative federalism," and rejecting the arguments of the Farm Bureau, the National Association of Home Builders, and other big agriculture interests.
  • May and June 2014: The EPA, CBF, in partnership with CCWC, maintain their efforts to continue to hold jurisdictions accountable for implementing their milestones by issuing reports evaluating progress on the 2012-2013 milestone period. (link to both EPA and CBF).
  • June 2014: Representatives from the entire watershed sign the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. For the first time, Delaware, New York, and West Virginia committed to full partnership in the Bay Program. The agreement includes the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint goals for 2017 and 2025, but also established goals for habitat restoration and conservation, improving fisheries, increasing public access public access, and environmental literacy, to name a few.
  • October 2014: CBF issues a peer-reviewed report that indicates full implementation of the Clean Water Blueprint will increase economic benefits watershed by an astonishing $22.5 billion annually. These benefits include air and water filtration, agricultural and seafood production, property valuation, and flood and hurricane protection.
  • July 2015: CBF collaborates with the CCWC on evaluating and publicizing the interim progress toward achieving the Bay jurisdictions’ 2014-15 milestone commitments.
  • June 2016: EPA provided its evaluations of the Bay jurisdictions' and federal agencies' progress towards meeting their 2014-2015 milestones. EPA also provided its evaluations of the 2016-2017 milestone commitments. It is clear from this assessment that Pennsylvania is falling behind on their pollution reduction commitments, especially for nitrogen.
  • September 2016: CBF issues a report that suggests prioritizing pollution reduction efforts in five south central Pennsylvania counties could dramatically accelerate efforts to get Pennsylvania back on track to meet its pollution reduction goals. This analysis helps catalyze federal funding and focus on these high pollutant loading areas.
  • June 2017: CBF issued an interim evaluation of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania's progress to determine if they were on-track to achieve their 2017 goal of practices in place to achieve 60 percent of their pollution reductions. Progress reducing pollution from wastewater is on-track in all-states, but efforts to reduce polluted runoff from agriculture and urban and suburban areas is lagging.
  • 2018: Midpoint assessment of whether the "60 percent by 2017" goal was achieved. States begin working on their Phase III Watershed Implementation Plans, focused on ensuring that all practices needed to fully restore the Bay and its tidal waters are in place by 2025.
  • 2025: Practices are in place that ultimately will reduce pollution levels to the point that the Chesapeake Bay can be removed from EPA's "dirty waters" list.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement

Signed in 2014, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement marked the first time representatives from the entire watershed signed on to a Bay cleanup agreement. The agreement includes 10 goals, each with a series of time-bound, measurable outcomes to accelerate pace of restoration and protection of the Bay watershed and align federal directives with state and local goals. In a letter, partners promised to openly and publicly engage watershed citizens in implementing these goals and outcomes. Partners also identified the management strategies they plan to participate in.

(above) The dark green area shows the Chesapeake Bay watershed as it spans six states and the District of Columbia. From its headwaters in Cooperstown, New York to the Virginia Capes, where its waters collide with the Atlantic Ocean 650 miles away, the Chesapeake is a single biological and hydrological system.

The Chesapeake Bay receives half of its water from a network of 110,000 streams and 1.7 million acres of wetlands, most of which are non-navigable tributaries and non-tidal wetlands that drain to those tributaries.

More than 40 years of scientific research by the Stroud Water Research Center in southeastern Pennsylvania attests to the critical importance of small headwater streams in removing pollution from higher order streams and rivers, as well as in preserving aquatic and riparian life throughout the entire system.

Share Your Clean Water Story

What does the Bay, its rivers and streams mean to you? What impact have the Bay and its local waters had on your life? We'd like to know.

Share Your Story

Stay Up-to-Date on Bay News

Want to stay up-to-date on all news and happenings in your region and across the Chesapeake watershed? Join our digital community.

Sign Up
This website uses cookies to tailor and enhance your online experience. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. For more information, including details on how to disable cookies, please visit our Privacy Policy. Close